Archival Seedlings: Resourcing Local Collaborators Across the American South

From the beginning of our grant-funded project, we at the Community-Driven Archives (CDA) Team at UNC Libraries have endeavored to envision programs that reorient traditional archival standards, workflows, and practices to be in deeper alignment with the needs and goals of historically marginalized history keepers across the South. One of our initiatives, Archival Seedlings, aims to extend the reach of our support beyond our four pilot partners, to directly resource individual projects that amplify community histories underrepresented in dominant archives, including ours at UNC-Chapel Hill.

What Is “Archival Seedlings”?

Launched in January 2020, Archival Seedlings is a 15-month program supporting the development of small community archives projects led by individual history keepers across the South. The program emphasizes process over product, and all 10 participants, known as “Seedlings,” have participated in seven months of programmed online “how-to” workshops on topics relevant to archival and history projects. Over the course of the program, CDA team members have also supported Seedlings in developing projects of their choosing.

Community Archival Work within an Institutional Archive

Though some Seedlings participants are potentially interested in becoming professional archivists, most are not. Never intended as a professional primer, our program focuses on supporting each project’s unique needs, rooted in the specific community it intends to serve. It operates from a consideration of best practices for community care and stewardship of historical records.

What makes Archival Seedlings unique?

  • It focuses on storytelling as well as access and preservation of historical records. Because many history keepers want to preserve as well as share histories that may not otherwise be recorded or documented, our program emphasizes the value of storytelling. We hosted workshops on research methods, exhibition development, and creating a documentary to help Seedlings imagine the shapes that their stories could take.
  • It is not overly concerned with deliverables; we emphasize process over product. Each Seedlings project varies greatly in terms of scale. Some Seedlings are interviewing 1 or 2 people and sharing a few meaningful photos related to their story through a blog post. Others are conducting multiple oral history interviews, aiming to kick off a new digital community-based collection. On our end, we don’t set requirements aside from asking that Seedlings share a few examples with us from their collections, participate in workshops, and stay in touch with our team.
  • It compensates participants for their time. Though not paid an hourly rate or salary like project staff members, each Seedlings participant received a $4,500 stipend for spending time participating in our programmed webinars, workshops, and related events, and for working on their projects. This is a small way of acknowledging the time and labor that goes into making, saving, and sharing history.
  • It supports projects that benefit the communities they come from. We encourage the participants to consider the long-term availability of their project to their chosen audiences. When Seedlings consider why they embarked on these projects and who needs to access them, they often decide that their materials should stay in community rather than go to an institutional archival collection. This is one way that we challenge the historically extractive nature of institutional archives.

Leading from our Values

As with all of our community archives-focused initiatives, we acknowledge that there is no one way to do this work and that, at its heart, community-based collaboration is relational and fluid. We learn to be adaptable based on each individual collaboration and what it presents in terms of needs, opportunities, constraints, and possibilities.

As with all of our programs, our values are our compass; we emphasize the importance of developing a set of guiding principles to lead the way. Below are ours:

  • We center the needs of a diverse set of communities by listening carefully to local leaders and supporting local history keepers. Engaged communities build more representative archives and historical narratives.
  • We demystify institutional archives and support history keepers to steward their own collections and interpret their own histories.
  • We directly support and resource the work of our partners. These groups preserve and share underrepresented stories and empower communities as curators.
  • We act as a home base for history keepers, sharing archival and interpretive approaches that range from easy to complex and from affordable to high budget.

For more about Archival Seedlings on the Southern Sources blog:

Archival Seedlings: Putting Our Values into Practice, the 2020 Edition

The Community-Driven Archives Project at UNC-Chapel Hill is supported by a grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Follow us on Twitter: @SoHistColl_1930 #CommunityDrivenArchives #CDAT #SHC

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